Part VIII–IX–The Law Cannot Annul or Vary the Promise

Paul concluded the previous section by declaring that Christ had accepted the curse of the Law, in order to redeem us from it. This action cleared the way for the next step in God’s purpose: “that the blessing of Abraham might come on the Gentiles through Jesus Christ; that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith” (v 14)

III.B.iv. The Law came after the promise (3:15–18)

15”Brethren, I speak after the manner of men; ough it be but a man’s covenant, yet if it be confirmed, no man disannulleth, or addeth thereto. 16 Now to Abraham and his seed were the promises made. He saith not, And to seeds, as of many; but as of one, And to thy seed, which is Christ. 17 And this I say, that the covenant, that was confirmed before of God in Christ, the law, which was four hundred and thirty years after, cannot disannul, that it should make the promise of none effect. 18 For if the inheritance be of the law, it is no more of promise: but God gave it to Abraham by promise.”

Paul’s argument is built on the concept of ‘covenant’. This term translates the Greek diathēkē, which refers to any binding agreement, contract, or covenant, a solemn promise to do certain things which establishes the obligations and rights of the parties to the covenant and is enforceable at law. The language of covenant is still current in Western society for all kinds of agreements — marriages, restrictive employment (non-compete) agreements, easements and other non-possessory rights or restrictions running with real property, home-owner commitments and industry commitments to such things as indigenous employment or packaging. What distinguishes covenants specifically from contracts generally is the element of promise. While God made a number of promise-covenants, Paul focuses on “two covenants” (4:24) in particular.

The first covenant

The covenant given by God to Israel at Sinai through the mediator, Moses, was ratified by a special ceremony described in Exodus 24:1–8 and discussed in Hebrews 9:18–21. It is called “the first covenant” (Heb 9:15, 18) or “the old covenant.” It was one of the great privileges of Israel to be a party to that covenant (Rom 9:4). Its moral principles were summed up in the Ten Words which were written upon stone and stored in “the ark of the covenant” (Heb 9:4).

Yet Israel’s attitude to that covenant was strangely ambivalent. For the first thousand years, they cared little for it. God was faithful to His covenant; but they were utterly faithless (Jer 31:32; Heb 8:9). Even when they had been transported from the Promised Land by God’s judgments, and returned to it by His grace, they were not much more attached to it. However, a tradition of devotion to the covenant grew up within the nation, earnest and sincere at first, which later morphed into Pharisaism and then into rabbinical Judaism. Having neglected this covenant for so long, they became obsessed with it. They could not see that it was time-limited. They could not see that it pointed to something outside of itself that was much greater and more enduring: the righteousness that is by faith in God’s salvation, presented in the Lord Jesus, accomplished in his death and resurrection and applied to us by his priestly work. Paul, who had himself been a rabbi, wrote that the Jews read the Law as if through a veil, unable to see the transforming glory of Christ and his spirit written into that Law (2 Cor 3:14).

The greater covenant

For all the greatness of the Law, the other covenant of which Paul speaks is greater still. This is “the new covenant,” the fulfilment of the promises given by God to Abraham, which involve: God’s blessing upon him; the gift of a descendant and a land; the formation of a great nation, as innumerable as the stars of the night sky or the grains of sand upon a beach, and, finally, the blessing of all nations in him.

Indeed, the promise conveys many blessings; but the great problem for mankind is sin, and the alienation from God which follows from sin. Hence, the great blessings which the promise brings to mankind are the forgiveness of sins, reconciliation with God, the possibility of a relationship with Him, and a genuine righteousness imprinted on the heart and the mind. This is the focus of the New Covenant, as Jeremiah plainly stated when he foreshadowed the covenant. The writer to the Hebrews quotes the prophet at length:

“Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah: not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt; because they continued not in my covenant, and I regarded them not, saith the Lord. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, saith the Lord; I will put my laws into their mind, and write them in their hearts: and I will be to them a God, and they shall be to me a people: and they shall not teach every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord: for all shall know me, from the least to the greatest. For I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and their iniquities will I remember no more” (Heb 8:8–12, citing Jer 31:31–34; also Heb 10:16–18).

Covenants ratified by death

Now every significant covenant given in biblical times was ratified through the death of covenant sacrifices and the shedding of their blood. In the case of the Law, this was “the blood of calves and of goats, with water, and scarlet wool, and hyssop” (Heb 9:18–22). Interestingly, these were burnt offerings and peace offerings (Exod 24:5), by which Israel celebrated the mutual commitment of God and His people to the covenant and the profound relationship that resulted. It is telling that no sin offerings were made: for the first or old covenant had no final answer to the endemic problem of human sin (Heb 9:9–10, 12–13, 15; 10:1–4).

After that covenant had been in operation 1,500 years, God sent His Son into the world. Out of love for the Father and his fellows, he gave himself, body and blood, “for the remission of sins.” The blood which owed from his wrecked body was “my blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many for the remission of sins” (Matt 26:28; Mark 14:24; Luke 22:20; 1 Cor 11:25).

The new covenant, forgiveness and spiritual power

It was not immediately obvious to his followers what he meant: but after his resurrection it became crystal clear. The focus of “the holy covenant” made by God with Abraham, and repeated throughout the Scriptures, was “the mercy promised to our fathers” (Luke 1:72). That mercy was the “taking away” of Israel’s sins (Rom 11:27). This, Peter announced at Pentecost when he told his listeners, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is unto you, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call” (Acts 2:38–39).

Yet the remitting of sins by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, an extraordinary act of mercy and grace on God’s part, would avail no more than the Law to deal with the problem of sin if it did not also come with the power to live a new life of righteousness (1 Cor 15:13–19). There is no “power of God unto salvation” in a dead Christ; but in a living Christ there is all the power we need, and more. This Peter hinted at when, a few days or weeks later, he told his Jewish listeners again, “Unto you first God, having raised up his Son Jesus, sent him to bless you, in turning away every one of you from his iniquities” (Acts 3:26). To remit the sins of desperate sinners is a very great kindness; but to turn those same forgiven men and women from their iniquitous course of life, to enable them “every one” to live a new life, to walk a new path in righteousness, faith, hope, and love, and bring them at last to immortality and “eternal inheritance” — that is a work of spiritual power accomplished by God in the resurrected and ever-living Jesus Christ.

Hence, the writer to the Hebrews declares, “If the blood of bulls and of goats, and the ashes of an heifer sprinkling the unclean, sanctifieth to the purifying of the flesh: how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God? And for this cause he is the mediator of the new covenant, that by means of death, for the redemption of the transgressions that were under the first covenant, they which are called might receive the promise of eternal inheritance” (Heb 9:13–15).1 Because of this power, and for many other reasons, the new covenant is the “better covenant, which is established upon better promises” (7:22; 8:6; 12:24). In fact, it is “the everlasting covenant” (13:20).

The new covenant and all nations

Of course, God never intended to limit the New Covenant and its promises to Israel. He had intended from the very beginning to extend it through Israel to those who were by birth “aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of promise” (Eph 2:12). To Abraham He had plainly said, “In thee shall all families of the earth be blessed” (Gen 12:3). Again, “Thou shalt be a father of many nations” (17:4–6), and Sarah “a mother of nations” (v. 16). And finally, “In thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed” (22:16–18).

On the day of Pentecost, when it came time to offer that covenant to mankind, Peter, the apostolic spokesman, again stated clearly that God’s offer was made to all nations, though he himself appears to have been unaware, at least initially, of the full meaning of what he had said: “The promise is unto you, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call” (Acts 2:39). And again he says,“To you first” (3:26). Over time, the Lord led Peter toward a wider understanding; but only when he was put in front of Cornelius and his household did he see clearly that “God is no respecter of persons: but in every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him … through his name whosoever believeth in him shall receive remission of sins” (10:34–43).

It was this “new covenant,” with its promises of forgiveness and relationship with God and its life-giving spiritual power, that Paul carried into all the world (2 Cor 3:6). It was a covenant founded not on the Law, which was now set aside as something that had done its work, and done it well, but was no longer needed, but on the promises. And it is the superiority and permanence of this covenant that Paul now defends.

15–16. But superficially, Paul has a problem. The Judaist can argue — and probably did, if we are to read between the lines of Paul’s argument — that the promises of God to Abraham were all very well but the Law came 430 years after and therefore superseded those promises. Paul responds by arguing that the covenant to Abraham was confirmed or “ratified” and therefore could not be voided or “disannulled”. Neither could it be varied by adding new clauses or a codicil, such as the Law.

17–18. So Paul insists that “the covenant … was confirmed before of God.” But when? Clearly Paul sees the confirmation in some typical ceremony or act that took place during the life of Abraham, putting the covenant into effect. Although the argument of Hebrews 9 uses different Greek words, it confirms the biblical idea that the ratification of a covenant requires the death of a covenant sacrifice (Heb 9:16–18). The obvious candidate for this in Abraham’s life is the covenant ceremony of Genesis 15. Abraham laid out a series of sacrifices upon the ground. He beat away the birds of prey that descended on the carcasses until he fell into a deep sleep that typified his death. He was given a prophecy of Israel’s migration into Egypt and return from that land to inherit the promises. The covenant ceremony was concluded when a fire and a lamp, representing God, passed between the pieces while Abraham was still incapacitated. Thus God confirmed that the promise-covenant was an act of pure grace and Abraham must wait on God for its fulfillment.

Thus, “the covenant … was confirmed before of God”; and the Law, coming 430 years later,2 could not overturn or vary that confirmed covenant. Furthermore, as inheritance fulfils the promise, the Law, coming later, cannot vary the terms on which the promise will be fulfilled and inheritance received.

There is one more point we should make before leaving this section. Paul does not make much of it yet but it is important. As we have seen him do repeatedly, he drops a marker, telling those who are reading carefully where he is going to take the argument. He picks up the word used by God to Abraham, the Greek sperma or Hebrew zera, “seed.” The word is singular in form but it can encompass many persons just like the words “family,” “clan,” “tribe,” or “nation” in English. The promise was not to many “seeds,” plural, Paul insists, but to one “seed,” singular. That seed, of course, is Christ; and in that man all of God’s promises to Abraham are fulfilled. Yet there are many in that man; and that many can include us. We can be baptised into Christ and thus become Christ’s, and therefore Abraham’s seed, and inherit the promises with Christ and Abraham.

At this point in his argument Paul is content simply to assert that Christ is Abraham’s seed; but he will return to this assertion at the end of the chapter. Christ is not simply an add-on to the Law for sinful Gentiles. The Law cannot deliver inheritance. Christ is the one and only person who will inherit the promises, and only by being united with him through baptism can we inherit them, whether Jew or Gentile.

Meanwhile, as Paul has argued, the promise-covenant stands firm, unaffected by the Law. Its promised blessings are certain and sure: the forgiveness of sins, reconciliation with God, the possibility of a relationship with Him, and a genuine righteousness imprinted on the heart and the mind. With every confidence we can put our faith in them and in the God who fully intended to give them to us many, many years ago, when He made promises to Abraham “and to his seed,” that is, Christ.

References:

  1. In Hebrews 9 the kjv uses the language of wills, of testators and testaments. This is founded on a misunderstanding introduced by the Vulgate, the standard translation of the Old and New Testaments into Latin, which Bishop Damasus of Rome commissioned the biblical scholar Jerome to produce in ad 382. Jerome used the Latin testamentum, ‘deed, testament’, to translate the Greek diathēkē, ‘covenant’. This resulted in some confusion of the metaphor in Hebrews 9, a confusion reproduced in the kjv and also in early editions of Elpis Israel, but subsequently corrected by Bro. C. C. Walker.
  2. In Chronikon Hebraikon Bro. Thomas appears to work backward from the date of the giving of the Law (which he assigns to 1626 bc, p. 16) and assigns the beginning of the 430 year period to the typical confirmation of the covenant in Gen 15 (which he dates to 2056 bc, p. 12). However, the early date for the Exodus accepted by conservative scholars is 1446 bc, and the late date accepted by other scholars is 1270 bc. Paul has taken the 430 year period from Exod 12:40 but it is not entirely clear how these dates can be reconciled. Alford and Constable begin at the point of Jacob’s entry into Egypt, when God assured Jacob that He would bring him up out of Egypt again (Gen 46:1–4), a promise later reaffirmed by Joseph (50:24–25). This event they date to 1875 bc. Alford supplies a detailed computation in support of his proposal; but it does not seem to qualify as a confirmation of the covenant.